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  • March 2008
    M T W T F S S
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Feeding the Elephant.

I recently read an excellent article in Edutopia that got me thinking more about the current culture of testing and grades in public schools. I’d already been thinking about it because many of Naturalist’s friends and my friends’ kids are knee deep in the state NCLB testing. This week long (WEEK LONG!!! My SAT & ACT tests in high school were only an afternoon!) extravaganza is what has shaped and formed their entire years curriculum at the expense of free play, art, music, fun science exploration, and extemporaneous and valuable ‘learning in the moment’.

I was at a meeting recently when a colleague told a story of being in India, where an educator there asked her, somewhat skeptically, “In America, you test your students a lot, don’t you?” She replied, “Well, indeed, the United States has a national policy that requires testing of all students in certain grades.” The Indian educator said, “Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant.”

Now, I’ve never been to India, and I’ve never tried to weigh an elephant. But this strikes me as the most concise and sound educational policy advice I’ve heard: Concentrate on what we should be doing intellectually (and physically) — feeding our children, and not just measuring their weight. But our nation, burdened by NCLB testing, is finding it’s incredibly difficult to weigh an elephant accurately. The obsession with testing is slowing down an already lumbering educational system, at a time when we need to be speeding up.

These state tests serve no other purpose than making sure the school & teachers are following a completely irrelevant minimum standard of education. I say ‘irrelevant’ because each state has a different standard…what one state deems important, another completely disregards. Our Government can’t officially create this standard, and so leaves it up to each state. But, the Government can dangle the carrot of ‘funding’ to make sure everyone tows the line and teachers are told what to teach, or else funding will be cut off.

Our children are tested to an extent that is unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere else in the world. While previous generations of American students have had to sit through tests, never have the tests been given so frequently, and never have they played such a prominent role in schooling. The current situation is also unusual from an international perspective: Few countries use standardized tests for children below high school age—or multiple-choice tests for students of any age.

(quote from ‘Standardized Testing and It’s Victims‘)

I find it ridiculous that a test to quantify how well a teacher is teaching is given to students. That ultimately the people suffering when a standard isn’t met and funding is cut, are these same children, rather than the administrators and/or teachers. But the biggest farce is the belief that funding has anything to do with educational performance. There are poorer nations spending far less on their public education that are outperforming our students.

Finland whose students come out top as far as performance in problem solving and near the top in nearly every category has rejected the whole idea of standardized testing for all ages except school-leavers. New Zealand students who also out-perform those of the USA also does not test pre-high school children at all. The Czech Republic where education per capita spending is about one-third of the US yet whose students outperformed US students regarding mathematical problem solving, does not test students at elementary level.

(quote from ‘Improving Education in California’)

The tail is wagging the dog, in the case of NCLB and state testing. If learning and education is the goal, then we could be doing no worse than to do what we are doing currently in our public schools.

Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking. In a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, elementary school students were classified as “actively” engaged in learning if they asked questions of themselves while they read and tried to connect what they were doing to past learning; and as “superficially” engaged if they just copied down answers, guessed a lot, and skipped the hard parts. It turned out that high scores on both the CTBS and the MAT were more likely to be found among students who exhibited the superficial approach to learning. Similar findings have emerged from studies of middle school students (also using the CTBS) and high school students (using the other SAT, the college-admission exam). To be sure, there are plenty of students who think deeply and score well on tests—and plenty of students who do neither. But, as a rule, it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.

The time, energy, and money that are being devoted to preparing students for standardized tests have to come from somewhere. Schools across the country are cutting back or even eliminating programs in the arts, recess for young children, electives for high schoolers, class meetings (and other activities intended to promote social and moral learning), discussions about current events (since that material will not appear on the test), the use of literature in the early grades (if the tests are focused narrowly on decoding skills), and entire subject areas such as science (if the tests cover only language arts and math). Anyone who doubts the scope and significance of what is being sacrificed in the desperate quest to raise scores has not been inside a school lately.

(quote from ‘Standardized Testing and It’s Victims‘)

And yet, the most common question I am asked when people find I am homeschooling is “You still have to take tests to make sure they are on the same level as other kids in their grade, right?!?” (usually with a sense of desperation.) In fact, this was one of my key points when I first started homeschooling 3 years ago…how could I make sure they were learning what everyone else their age was learning in school.

How things change in 3 years. Now, I would be horrified if it were proved that they were on track with ‘grade level’ public school.

Other Articles:
U.S. falls in education rank compared to other countries
To Test Or Not To Test

8 Responses

  1. Excellent post!

  2. Thanks for the links. I’m looking forward to reading the articles.

  3. Great post. Thanks.

  4. Wonderful post!!

    Hey! I started my own private blog and want to add you and Sheri, too but I can’t do that without your email addresses.

    Can you email me at unschoolingwhimsigal@gmail.com if you’re interested?


  5. Nicely expressed. I am very opposed to the tests and if people get me talking about it, I have a hard time not expressing my extreme dislike for these useless tests and pointing out that nothing is gained from them.

  6. It’s one of those reasons that I am against the school system.
    Most of us -I’m not blaming, just referring to other hsers, mostly- say “I’m not against school, we just want a different way for our family.”
    I pretty much am against school.
    Aside from my unschooling philosophies, Teaching To A Test (as Gatto explains so well) is so ridiculous!
    It’s just a matter of graphing success on a chart for bureaucracy, to me.
    I heard the other day “Creativity is one thing that cannot be taught,” and I thought how true it was.
    Much better to have enthusiasm and vigor than to know how to pass a test.

  7. Er – enthusiasm and vigor for learning, I meant.

  8. Two things come to mind in reading this:
    “The dumbing down of America”
    and a quote I once heard that was something like “Real thinking happens so seldom that by necessity we call it creative”.

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